"We aspire to be an international benchmark in university matters"

Interview in depth with Josep M. Vilalta, Executive Secretary of the ACUP and Director of the GUNi.

Josep Maria Vilalta
05/05/2022 - 15:07 h - Education and studies Octavi Planells

Josep M. Vilalta, a specialist in management and public policy, educational policy and university and research management, is the Executive Secretary of the Catalan Association of Public Universities (ACUP) and Director of the Global University Network for Innovation (GUNi). On the eve of the UNESCO 2022 World Conference on Higher Education in Barcelona, we spoke to him about the repercussions of an international event of this magnitude, and the present and future of public universities, research and higher education in general.

Why has UNESCO chosen Barcelona to hold its higher education congress?

The UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education is held approximately every 10 years. Two have been held so far, in 1998 and 2009, both at UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris. On this occasion, UNESCO proposed to GUNi, which has its headquarters, presidency and secretariat in Barcelona, to organise it in our city. It took into account our long experience and recognised GUNi’s leadership in higher education policy and management worldwide. At the same time, Barcelona has, as we know, an international reputation as a dynamic, attractive city and organiser of national and international fairs and congresses.

What role have the ACUP and GUNi played in achieving this?

Our role has been fundamental. As I was saying, UNESCO has full confidence in the GUNi global network and at the same time in the capacity of the ACUP, which brings together the eight public universities in the country and also has a long tradition of international relations. That is why it is so important to be able to count on organisations and networks of global prestige in our city: they place us in the world and at the same time project Barcelona and the whole country internationally.

What does such an event represent for Barcelona?

Firstly, that our city continues to be present on the international scene, especially considering the two years of pandemic that have halted fairs and congresses. Secondly, it reaffirms our commitment to UNESCO and the United Nations: to the values of peace and multilateralism, to the defence of education as a public service, and to science and culture for human and social progress. We believe that we will be the focal point of attention for the whole world. The World Conference will be attended by delegates from practically every country in the world, and some 8,000 people will also be able to follow it online.

And for Catalan universities?

An event of this kind positions Barcelona and Catalonia as a reference point for universities in the world. We must take advantage of this fact, which only happens on rare occasions in the life of a city, to consolidate Barcelona as a world university capital. We aspire to be an international benchmark, beyond tourism, leisure and gastronomy, by deploying a set of university programmes at a global level and based in Barcelona with the GUNi network and the set of institutions that support us: the Spanish Government, the Catalan Government, Barcelona City Council, Barcelona Provincial Council and UNESCO itself. We should bear in mind that within the framework of the World Conference, GUNi will officially present its new World Report, which is a global reference and which has been conceived as a living document that will be completed and improved over the next four years.

What is the state of our universities?

I think we have a sufficiently solid university and research system, if we compare ourselves with the rest of Europe. And above all, it is quite efficient, if we take into account the results obtained with respect to the public resources we devote to it, which are scarce from a European perspective. But, as I have said on other occasions, we are at a critical moment: the budget reductions of recent years have hit universities hard. We now have ageing universities, with very scarce resources, with too much precariousness.

In this context, what are the main challenges you face?

The main challenges for the next three to five years are to significantly increase public funding for universities and science, to enable generational renewal and therefore to invest in young faculty and research, and finally to reduce bureaucracy that does not add value. Grant universities and research centres greater management autonomy, with full accountability and transparency. We need innovative and socially committed universities, as they are key institutions for a society of progress and welfare and a competitive economy with skilled jobs. We must also rethink education in the light of current and future social and economic transformations, and take advantage of technological tools to be more inclusive and to offer better education.

How will the UNESCO Conference help to address these challenges?

All these issues will certainly be addressed at the World Conference. UNESCO plans to adopt a Roadmap setting out future goals and strategies for education systems around the world, also in line with the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As GUNi, we aim to be a key partner in monitoring the evolution of the world’s university systems, in collaboration with UNESCO.

In terms of teaching, what is the position of Catalan universities in the Spanish and European context?

Our teaching is fully in line with European standards. Our graduates have a good education which, for example, allows them to carry out training stays in other countries and enter the labour market of any country or company based in Europe or other regions, as a matter of course. The same applies to doctoral researchers. Having said that, there is one factor that reduces our capacity: the organisation of the degrees in four years, when, as you know, in practically all of Europe they are three years. Universities should be allowed greater autonomy so that they can offer three-year degree courses.

And in terms of scientific production?

We have made a spectacular leap forward in record time: we have gone from being a country in which research was residual to a country with European-wide recognition. And we have done it in just three decades, and we are not sufficiently aware of this. Catalan universities and research centres are fully accredited in terms of scientific research, they are highly internationalised and are among the European systems that attract the most competitive funds from European calls for proposals. But the lack of public investment is beginning to be felt, and we must once again make a clear commitment to research; if not, these good results will diminish, and we will once again be at the bottom of the European league.

Does all this teaching and research activity respond effectively to the needs of society, and what are the areas for improvement in this respect?

Universities must be more open to the needs and demands of society, without a doubt. Too often we have lived in isolation in a self-satisfied logic. We need to listen to society, rethink curricula when necessary, provide greater applicability, think science with society and for society. We have done a lot of work in recent years, but we need to do more.

One of the themes of the congress is lifelong learning. How is this aspect being promoted in our universities?

It is the great paradigm for the future of our societies. We are fully in the knowledge society, and lifelong learning is already a reality for everyone. We often continue to think of universities as a place for young people coming from previous studies, but increasingly we must think of them as lifelong learning institutions, with entrances and exits through all possible areas of the institution. All universities already have foundations for lifelong learning, tailor-made training programmes for professionals and companies, classrooms for seniors. But it is necessary to rethink the university as a whole, focusing on lifelong learning.

What is the relationship between universities and other models of higher education, such as vocational training, and how do they complement each other?

Historically, we have lived quite isolated. But little by little this handicap is dissolving, and we have more and more gateways and opportunities to allow continuous training between vocational and university education. In recent years, we have also been promoting dual university training.

What are universities doing to improve the career opportunities for graduates?

We have a very good tool at our disposal: the survey on the professional insertion of graduates, which is carried out every three years by the University System Quality Agency (AQU). We already have a long series that provides us with a lot of information, rich in nuances by studies and with the opinion of the graduates on the training they have received once they are already in the labour market.

As I said, we are introducing dual university training, and we have, for example, a very powerful initiative in the so-called industrial doctorates, which connect academia with companies and institutions. We also reinforce, whenever possible curricular or extracurricular internships in companies and institutions. Undoubtedly, more needs to be done, but in recent years a remarkable effort has been made.

Of course, we are very concerned about the precariousness of the world of work, but we must also send out a clear message: more training means less unemployment and less precariousness. The professional insertion of university graduates (despite significant differences between fields and professions) is still very high, but as I say, we must all work together to reverse the dynamics of precariousness and low salaries.

How do you assess Barcelona City Council’s policies on higher education?

The City Council can be a key agent in consolidating university and scientific projects: spaces and facilities, university residences, ease of procedures, specific aid. It can form alliances with the other actors: the universities and research centres themselves, but also the Generalitat and the State and other public and private agents. Promoting the Barcelona brand internationally is critical. UNESCO and GUNi can also help a lot, and we must make a firm commitment over the next five years to consolidate Barcelona as a world university capital.

Another important aspect is to encourage scientific and technological vocations (STEM) among children and young people, promoting social inclusion, and to carry out more actions of communication and social valuation of knowledge and science with society. And to continue promoting the economy and innovation in the city, in initiatives such as global fairs and presence in international debates such as ICT and inclusion, inequalities and education or the SDGs and the United Nations 2030 Agenda.

In this regard, I greatly value the work carried out by Barcelona City Council in these areas in recent years, but it is necessary to consolidate programmes and initiatives. I repeat: now is the time to make a clear and decisive commitment, from GUNi and ACUP we want to participate actively.

How do universities address gender inequalities such as glass ceilings, gender discrimination or the clichés associated with certain roles or professions?

These are realities that concern and occupy us more and more every day. Gender inequalities are a burden and are unacceptable. We are losing talent. We have as many women as men in university studies, which is excellent. But as we move on to doctoral studies and then to post-doctoral training, the gap begins to widen. And in the professional careers of teaching and research staff, they continue to widen, up to the final stage of professorships, where the presence of women is very residual. There are also few women in positions of responsibility and management. This needs to be reversed, with concrete initiatives and measures that universities are already implementing, but which will need to be further strengthened.

How has Covid-19 impacted the university system?

The impact has been very great. Mainly in the field of teaching and in the training of the student community. Universities went from face-to-face to online training in two days, when the first confinement was decreed, and as you know, this has been extended over the last year and a half with the changes and successive waves of the pandemic. The training could continue relatively normally, but it was not optimal traffic. Suddenly losing life in the classrooms, on the campuses and in the laboratories, the relationships between teaching staff and students, has been a hard blow, especially for first-year students.

We must now carefully rethink university education because we will move, sooner rather than later, towards hybrid models where a wise combination of face-to-face and online classes is necessary for the sake of the integral education of students.

Financially, the pandemic has also been a hard blow, but we hope to be able to recover economic stability and the growth of public resources in the coming years. From the point of view of scientific research, the impact has been minor and, in fact, has made it possible to show the importance of science and international collaboration for the sake of progress and the well-being of societies.